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  • Is Love an Emotion? Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and Antony and Cleopatra
  • David Schalkwyk (bio)

Shakespeare studies (and those of early modern English literature in general) have paid little attention to emotion in the past half century. The New Criticism, which displaced traditional historicism in the 1950s and 60s, may have acknowledged implicitly that one of the roles of literary texts is to evoke or represent emotion, but both its fundamental concern with form and a concomitant disparagement of character meant that emotion was never one of its central objects. Emotion was, however, in for an ever leaner time. The theoretical movements that displaced the New Critical orthodoxy from the continent from the 1960s onwards were almost uniformly anti-humanist. In both Saussurean structuralism, which focused on the enabling, a personal systems from which stories and speech are derived, and the radically antihumanist poststructuralisms (psychoanalytic, deconstructive and Marxist) that largely displaced it, human emotion was considered a peripheral, if not positively reactionary, concept. The New Historicism of the 1980s, concerned with the circulation of power in the contexts that made literary texts possible, also tended to disregard both what characters in those texts might be said to be feeling and the emotions they might evoke in their readers or audiences. But insofar as the New Historicism made it unthinkable to read a Shakespeare play in an unreflective, common-sense way that assumed a universal human nature (of which the emotions, we assume, are part), it encouraged a delimited, historically informed re-evaluation of emotion. Renamed “affect” or “passion,” to acknowledge the historical difference, what we call emotion became the focus of a historicist re-evaluation of the place of feeling in early modern culture.1

The combination of historicism and a growing interest a non-Marxist concept of materialism led to the establishment of an influential study of early [End Page 99] modern passions. Pioneered by Gail Kern Paster in its post new-Historicist formulation, its proponents argue that the picture of the passions shared by almost all Elizabethans and Jacobeans was derived from the Roman philosopher and physician, Galen. Galen had combined the Empedoclean notion of the basic constituents of the universe (earth, fire, water, air) with the Hippocratic assumption that human beings were composed of four humors—black bile (melancholia), blood (sanguis), yellow bile (choler), and phlegm (phlegma). Paster reminded scholars and critics that what we take to be a merely metaphoric account of emotion in Shakespeare’s plays and the work of his contemporaries, his audience would have understood literally, as a reference to the workings of material substances in the body (2004, 14).2 The understanding of early modern talk or expression of emotion consequently required mastery of a system of humoral theory radically different from our modern, common-sense, or scientific concepts, despite the fact that our language retains vestiges of Galenic theory (as when we speak of someone being “melancholic,” “phlegmatic,” or “sanguine” by nature or disposition). The emotions as they are represented by Shakespeare do not therefore speak directly to us but are rather informed by a historically strange material conception of the body and natural attractions and repulsions that extended to all things.3

If the turn to the Galenic conception of human emotions or passions fitted well with the general historicism that had swept the field since the 1990s, a new approach based on cognitive theory has begun to stake contrary claims. This approach provides a powerful counter to the historically inflected theories that defined themselves in opposition to “liberal humanism” by declaring that a transhistorical and transcultural “human nature” does not exist. The new approach offers a scientifically derived claim that human emotions may be explicable in terms of universal structures of the human body and brain. Cognitive psychologists are often also evolutionary [End Page 100] psychologists, in which case they argue that emotions are not only reducible to physiological processes in the human body but have also evolved, through a process of natural selection, in order to adapt the organism primarily for action and survival. In this account, emotions are divided into those that are “basic”—happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust—and those sometimes called “social”—shame...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-0627
Print ISSN
1069-0697
Pages
pp. 99-130
Launched on MUSE
2011-05-18
Open Access
No
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